First stage is key to Merrick success
CREWS competing in Saturday's Hankook Merrick Stages Rally will need to be "in the groove" from the start as they tackle a daunting opening test of nearly 19 miles.
The monster Glentrool stage will be key to deciding the outcome of the seventh and penultimate round of the Hankook MSA Scottish Rally Championship, which has attracted nearly 100 entries.
"When you go into that first 19-miler, there's no messing", said 2009 Merrick winner and top seed Jock Armstrong; "You've really got to get to grips with it, and get the feel straight away".
Defending Scottish champion David Bogie, who starts second, agreed: "You need to commit to it from the word go. If you have a lazy stage, or you're not 100 percent on the ball, then you can have either a poor time or make a costly mistake."
"Nineteen miles comes with its own challenges in keeping up the level of concentration and still attacking every corner from the start to the end," said Mike Faulkner, who is seeded third: "It's important to get into a rhythm early on and stick to it. Obviously if you get a puncture or make an error in such a long stage, and the day is ruined".
With the best six out of eight rounds deciding the final Scottish championship placings, the "Merrick" is regarded as a "make or break" event.
Bogie is well on the way to securing his second Scottish crown. He has four victories under his belt so far this season, alongside Hawick co-driver Kevin Rae, and leads the overall standings by sixteen points.
"If we were to push for a win on Saturday and everything falls into place then it would certainly see the championship off", said the Dumfries driver: "Winning the title last year was very, very difficult - a lot of things didn't go in my favour. This year it's just all fallen into place - I feel I'm driving well, the car's going well, the team's doing well, so hopefully the Merrick will be no different".
British championship front-runner and Mitsubishi Evo Challenge leader Jonny Greer from Northern Ireland is one of three non-SRC registered competitors seeded in the top ten - the other two being fellow BRC contender Euan Thorburn from Duns, and 2009 BTRDA Gold Star champion Dave Wright.
Euan Thorburn finished fourth on the "Merrick" last year in his Subaru, and is targeting a podium this time out at the wheel of a recently acquired Mitsubishi Evo 9.
"I just want to get a clean rally under my belt without any major issues - something which hasn't really happened for me in a long time", said Thorburn, who will have Paul Beaton from Inverness on the notes.
"I feel I can definitely improve on last year's fourth, as we are in a better car, and I don't have the pressure of trying to score points in the SRC".
The 2-wheel drive contingent will be led once again by Steve Bannister and Hawick co-drover Louise Sutherland - with fellow Escort Mk2 crew Mike Horne/Robbie Mitchell from Duns aiming to keep them in their sights.
Berwick co-driver Christine Sanderson once again partners Newton Stewart driver Craig McMiken in his Mitsubishi Evo 9 while experienced Jedburgh co-driver Dave Robson will be on the notes for Inverness driver Dougal Brown in his Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 4. Kelso co-driver Carin Logan partners Dumfries driver Richard Stewart in a Subaru Impreza.
West Linton's John Boyd will again be going flat out for a class win in his very rapid Ford Fiesta ST.
Duns driver Garry Pearson is hoping to build on recent success in the Brick and Steel 205 Ecosse Challenge. Mechanical issues blighted Pearson and co-driver Tom Hynd in the middle part of the year, but the pair firmly banished the reliability gremlins with a convincing drive on August's Speyside Stages.
Garry said: "We can't afford too many slip-ups from now on because of the problems we had in the middle of the year, but it's very encouraging to see the pace is there for us to mount a challenge in both the 205s and the Scottish classes," he continues.
"Hopefully the mechanical problems are behind us now," adds co-driver Hynd. "I think we turned a corner on the Speyside and are over the hurdle with bad luck."
Hot on Pearson's heels is sure to be the father and son team of Sean Robson and Iain Robson from St Boswells, also in a Peugeot 205 GTi and Sarah Hunter (St Boswells) and Gary White (Earlston) in their Peugeot.
Melrose driver Peter Mayland is entered in his Honda Civic Type R as are Nick Thorne (Earlston) and Scott Hunter (St Boswells) in a Peugeot 205 and Tom Wilkinson (Berwick) and John Straughan (Cornhill) in their Hillman Avenger.